What do you believe when you can’t believe anything? That question was recently posed by Aviv Ovadya, the chief technologist from the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility.
What the MIT graduate was referencing in an interview on BuzzFeed and a column he wrote for the Washington Post is the staggering amount of misinformation on the internet spread quickly and intentionally with ads on social media.
Fortune magazine reported that Facebook’s testimony to Congress indicated 80,000 pieces of content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency reached more than 100 million people during the past election. The old-fashioned propaganda campaign also included 131,000 Twitter messages and 1,100 Youtube videos.
The extent is so widespread that Ovadya found a significant number of “top trending” news stories were inaccurate. The problem is that popularity, not quality or accuracy, rules the digital world. What gets the most clicks and likes goes to the top of everyone’s feed, but the algorithms that drive both Google and Facebook can be gamed with ads and “bots” to generate fraudulent likes and move news items up the list. Who cares if it’s right as long as you agree with it and it’s popular? That’s the sentiment behind this hijacking of information.
And it didn’t end with the election, when the school shooting in Florida happened, immediately a “bot” army controlled by Russia sprang into action making thousands of inflammatory posts, both for and against gun control. The purpose of these outrageous and insensitive posts, according to a New York Times story, was just to stir up the political fighting in this country.
Ovadya characterized the threat to widely disseminate false information as being like a car careening towards a cliff - and not only is no one trying to stop it, no one even sees the car.
This is the tip of the iceberg of the damage that can be unleashed by malicious and ingenious technology now rolling out.
Some of the new technology that the Center for Social Media Responsibility says is either already available or not far away:
• There are sites and software that initially could be used to create porn by putting the faces of celebrities into realistic sex scenes. Trashy in itself, but the same software could be used to settle a score with that annoying person at the office, “Hey y’all look at the video someone sent me.”
• With similar software you could find yourself shown shoplifting on one of the convenience store security videos that we all see shared online.
• A new software is described as “Photoshop for audio” could be used very well in phone scams such as “Hi grandma. I need to get your Social Security number again for that form.”
• We’ve all seen someone on Facebook apologizing about a message sent by their account that wasn’t really them. The next step: using what’s already on social media, advanced programs can scan your real posts and likes and then send a completely false message to you, made more believable as it would appear it came from a friend and include a topic you had discussed before. Imagine thinking your aunt sent you a Facebook message welcoming you back from a genuine vacation but then mainly telling how much weight she has lost, and here is a link to buy pills.
As described in the BuzzFeed story, we’ve already reached a point where any person could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”
You want a video of Trump kicking a kitten, well here it is. Need a video of Schumer punching a baby? Give us a minute. Hey, let’s have someone for local office caught on cell phone video saying they love Nazis. No problem with the software that is out there.Technology to distort reality is moving faster than gullible humans are able to adapt.
One of the first steps is to demand accountability from the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook. They are dominating the economy and it’s not too much to expect them to clean up their acts. Rather than running purely by programs and algorithms, asking them to hire more human monitors wouldn’t cut much into their hefty bank accounts.
Second, we all need to raise our fraud, fake scrutiny-threshold. Quit falling for, sharing, or liking every ridiculous story that comes along. We may never tame the technology, but we can all think for ourselves.